I’ve been wary of online marketplaces ever since I tried to sell my car on Craigslist a few years ago. The posting generated far more scammers than potential purchasers, rendering the site largely useless. These days, I usually find it easier just to give our used stuff to charity, or offer it to neighbors for free on NextDoor.
But when my wife and I bought a new sofa set last month, I thought maybe I could recoup a few bucks by offering our old furniture on Facebook Marketplace. What could possibly go wrong?
Now that we are well into middle age, my wife and I have resigned ourselves to the inevitable. No, I don’t mean taking up pickleball. (Ok, fine, we’ve also taken up pickleball.) We decided to splurge on a powered reclining sofa. Buttons on the sides to move each seat up and down. Adjustable lumbar support. Built-in reading lights and USB chargers and cup holders.
We may never leave the sofa again.
Which left the question of what to do with our old furniture. The black leather sofa and loveseat set, which served us well for about 20 years, wasn’t in bad shape, so you’d think it wouldn’t be too tough to find it a good home.
In the past, we’ve donated our furniture to charity; but, alas, the local charities have curtailed pick-ups during the Covid era, and we couldn’t exactly strap everything to the roof of our Honda.
And maybe I got a little greedy. That powered sofa didn’t come cheap — did I mention it has built-in USB chargers? — and getting a couple hundred bucks out of a trade-in would at least defray some of the cost.
I thought I’d give Facebook Marketplace a shot. The listing would be geographically constrained to the San Francisco area, presumably limited to potential buyers able to drive over and pick up the furniture. And perhaps Facebook, unlike Craigslist, had managed to deal with the issue of online scammers.
Turns out — not so much.
I wrote up a brief description and uploaded a few photos. $200 for the pair, just need to come and pick them up. I launched the posting at around 4:00 in the afternoon.
Within thirty seconds, I received an instant message.
Is this still available?
Naturally, I was immediately suspicious. It seemed unlikely some passionate devotee of slightly-worn leather furniture was staking out the Facebook Marketplace at that particular moment, waiting to pounce.
Still, maybe this “Julka” who messaged me just happened to be looking for furniture when my post popped up. Stranger things have happened, right? And my affirmative response kicked off a brief back-and-forth that at least seemed reasonable. How long have you had the couches? What condition are they in? Why are you getting rid of them?
I started to get my hopes up. Maybe things were on the up and up.
And then I noticed that, over the approximately 60 seconds during which Julka and I were chatting about leather wear-and-tear, another half-dozen messages had rolled in.
Is this still available? Is this still available? Is this still available?
Incidentally, while the series of identical “Is this still available?” messages seemed a clear indication that a scam was afoot, it turns out that Facebook offers a few default prompts to start the conversation, this being one of them. Still… everyone on Facebook was that eager to get their hands on my black leather sofa?
I clicked on a few of the user profiles. Some were completely vacant, nothing but a couple profile pictures. Others were more fully-realized, teeming with photos and lists of friends and, almost without exception, based somewhere in the Balkans — which, let’s face it, is an awfully long way to drive to pick up some old furniture.
My hopes of getting those couches out of my garage quickly fading, I turned back to my new Slovenian friend Julka. I was a little curious what the scam might be.
She asked if she could come pick up the couches the next day. Sure, I responded.
And then she turned to payment. She asked if I had a Zelle account; not only that, but she wanted to pay me right now so that I could mark the item sold on Facebook.
Ah, there we go. Almost certainly a variation on the classic advance fee scheme. I assumed she’d send me a Zelle payment for, say, $2000, and then message me that she’d accidentally added an extra zero; would I mind sending her back the extra $1800? Of course, her account would be empty, and her original $2000 transfer would fail to clear; meanwhile, she’d have disappeared with my return payment, leaving me $1800 in the hole. These scams were holdovers from the days of checkbooks, ported into the online payment era.
That understanding in hand, I thought I’d chat up some of my other new Facebook friends. I got a few more questions about the condition of the couches, would I be around tomorrow for a pick-up, yadda yadda… and then, invariably, can I pay you with Zelle? Right now?
Another common theme quickly emerged. Julka explained that she was out of town, but her brother would pick up the couches and make the payment. I assumed the scammers had set up a Zelle account in the name of some random guy, rather than establishing multiple accounts under the various names they were using as purported Facebook Marketplace shoppers. That way I wouldn’t question why I was getting paid by Joe Smith — or, more specifically, Вченцислв Дичев — rather than Julka with the unpronounceable Slovenian surname.
Every prospective buyer I engaged with, once we’d established the couches were still available, explained that he or she (mostly she — I guess prospective female buyers might seem more honest?) was out of town, but some male relative — a husband, a cousin, a son (“oldest son,” no less) — would come by to pick up the furniture. And then they asked whether I had a Zelle account.
By this point, I was resigned to my intended sale being a complete bust, and decided to start shutting down the conversations with all my new Facebook friends.
I turned back to Julka, and insisted that I could only take cash. I threw in an explanation that, as someone who investigated fraud for the federal government, I couldn’t accept electronic payments.
That ended my conversation, and my budding Facebook friendship, with Julka.
(This wasn’t entirely a fib; I did, in fact, investigate fraud for the federal government for much of my career. That was some years back, but Julka didn’t seem inclined to stick around to chat about my career path.)
I sent a few more messages explaining that I would only accept cash (throwing in a couple government investigator references for good measure), and was promptly ghosted by a vast swath of the Balkan furniture-shopping populace.
Still, a few more inquiries continued to pop up that afternoon and into the evening.
These slackers who’d waited well over an hour to respond to my post seemed to be getting lazy, skipping over the sofa-talk entirely and jumping straight into payment proposals. (And, of course, the promise that a relative would pay me and pick up the couches because everyone was squeezing in a late summer trip to the beaches of Montenegro, where they apparently spent the days in their hotel rooms shopping online for used furniture).
Clarisa tried to sweeten the pot, offering to pay me $10 over asking — again, they’re pretty nice couches — though she didn’t mention how she planned to get to Northern California from her home in Bulgaria.
Meanwhile, Jimmy, cheap bastard that he is, tried the opposite approach, lowballing me with a $90 offer. If I wasn’t chomping at the bit to grab $210 from Clarisa, maybe the arrival of a savvy negotiator on the scene would seem legit enough for me to share my Zelle account info.
To my dismay, my exuberant willingness to accept $210 or $90 (respectively) as long as it came in cold, hard cash had both Clarisa and Jimmy scurrying for the exits.
All told, I got just over a dozen “offers” for my furniture that day. A few more stragglers rolled in before I pulled the listing the following week.
I did attract one apparently legitimate offer — a recent college graduate with a real Facebook account. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to track down a friend with a truck big enough to pick up the couches.
My wife and I ended up finding a nice home for the sofa — someone in the area of modest means whose son needed it for his apartment. We gave it to him for free.
Alas, he didn’t have enough space for the loveseat.
It’s sitting in my garage. Let me know if you’re interested; I have Zelle.